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Hockey helps youths see the world

Tom Boyd

It has been a very different kind of holiday for the young athletes and parent chaperones who participated in the Vail International Hockey tour of Eastern Europe this year.The group has been playing hockey at the bantam and midget level, and learning about the cultures of Poland, the Czech Republic and Russia. They are led by Merv Lapin, who has been organizing alternating trips to Eastern Europe or China for Vail youths every other year for more than 15 years.Through their travels, this year’s group has been in touch with The Vail Trail, sending us reports of their time at theaters, visiting cultural centers, churches and synagogues, meeting with prominent people of the regions, and, of course, playing hockey.It is clear, through their communications, that the group has been deeply affected by what they’ve seen and experienced. Many of the hockey players developed sore throats and coughs because of the thick pollution in Poland. And unique foods have prompted interesting responses from the players.But perhaps the most powerful moment of the trip came just before New Year’s, when the group visited Auschwitz, the former Nazi concentration camp in Poland.Chaperone Charlene Zent wrote to us to tell of that day.”We left the hotel for the drive to Auschwitz and it was fitting weather gray and overcast with haze (pollution?). Not a place where I wanted sunshine and cheer,” she writes.”We went though the main gate at Auschwitz, which the prisoners passed each day on their way to work (12-plus-hour days) with the inscription ‘Arbeit macht frie’ (work brings freedom). Right. Our guide told us and showed us where they would have an actual orchestra playing marches as the prisoners came through to make it more ‘efficient’ for the SS to count them.”Auschwitz was singled out as the site for the proposed total eradication of the Jewish population and did, in fact, become the biggest center for mass extermination of European Jews. The majority were killed in gas chambers immediately on arrival, without even being registered.”We saw the remnants of four crematoriums, gas chambers, cremation pits, the unloading platform where the prisoners were divided, and the pond with the human ashes.”We also saw the preserved buildings and prisoners’ barracks, sentry watch towers and barbed-wire fences.”This alone to me was worth the trip. A reality check for sure. Most of the kids went through a wide range of emotions as we followed our guide (very quietly, by the way).”The traveling group followed the Auschwitz visit with a trip over the Tatra mountains into Slovakia, and through a ski village with familiar A-frame houses and ski rental shops.The group returned to Prague and was treated with tickets to a European NHL game complete with cheerleaders, drums and a band cheering on the local Prague team before heading for the airport and the long plane ride home.


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